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July 21, 2011 3:42 pm

Film Review: Gentleman’s Agreement

avatar by Daniel Vahab

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John Garfield and Dorothy McGuire in Gentleman's Agreement.

In the 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement a star reporter is assigned a series on anti-Semitism. The editor of the magazine tells Phil Green (Gregory Peck) that he doesn’t just want the pieces filled with statistics, that anyone can find facts and figures to make a case on the prevalence of anti-Semitism. Instead, he wants Green to explore the human aspect of the hate, the visceral feelings against Jews. In order to really, personally experience the emotions needed to write the exposes right, to do them justice, Green must feel the injustice of being a Jew. Thus, he pretends he and his family are Jewish. After he goes to check into a country club and is revealed as Jewish, he finds the place is suddenly at full capacity. Other times, he applies for jobs that are vacant for non-Jews but not Jews. His son is called a “dirty Jew” at school and comes home crying. There are neighborhoods where no Jews reside, and it’s no coincidence. Some people simply won’t rent to Jews.

In the end, Green fools everyone. His secretary believes he’s Jewish, the staff reporters, his super, everyone. But nothing about him has changed. He looks the same; he has the same hair, face, bone structure, personality, sounds the same, etc. Only now he’s Jewish.

What the main character of the film felt for a time period was felt by Jews everyday back then, all their lives, and has been felt for decades prior. Yet there are many Jews who cringe when they experience anti-Semitism, but stop there. They go home feeling terrible, and regretting not saying or doing something about it. They swear that next time they will intervene. Some of those Jews become indifferent to the anti-Semitism. They feel that there is nothing they can do to change anyone’s minds. They give up and say it’s the loss of the anti-Semitic person or institution for not wanting them. They feel they shouldn’t have to prove themselves worthy of acceptance. They may have tried once to right a wrong and failed, and never tried again. They may pass off the job of ridding the world of anti-Semitism on another. They may feel that their single efforts won’t amount to much, and ask themselves, “How much any can one person actually do to right a wrong?” If Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatmas Gandhi believed that, and so many other activists like them, African Americans would still be segregated and lacking civil rights and India wouldn’t have received its independence. These brave men broke barriers. They did the impossible, yet so many take their sacrifices, efforts, and accomplishments for granted.

And while Green delved deep into anti-Semitism and personally felt the pinch, critic Bosley Crowther of The New York Times in 1947 complained that Green’s character failed to fully explore  anti-Semitism. She noted that Green’s purview of observation and analysis was flawed in that it was based solely on high society in business and social settings. This, she alluded to, was why the anti-Semitism Green experienced was “petty bourgeois rebuffs.”

I agree that Green should have widened his subject of study and report—his findings may have been worse in less refined, elitist circles. However, I would have to disagree with the characterization of Green’s experience as “petty bourgeois rebuffs.” To characterize any anti-Semitism as such is an incredible understatement.

Adding that the character of Green, particularly because he was an astute reporter, was “extraordinary naïve” in that he was so surprised that anti-Semitism is “cruel” is perhaps a better assessment by Crowther. But I think Crowther overlooked the point that until you really experience something firsthand, you haven’t really experienced it. You may read and study and think you know what it feels like, how incensed it can make you, but your notion of cruel takes on new, more intense meaning when you feel it.

In 1997 (fifty years since the film’s premiere) the Times did another film review of Gentleman’s Agreement. It in, writer George F. Custen uncovered the film’s subtle shortcomings that tell of a Hollywood and its Jewish stewards not yet comfortable with the public’s eye on the issue of anti-Semitism. As Custen reveals, this is evidenced by the title of Green’s expose on anti-Semitism, “I Was a Jew for Six Months,” and what the title didn’t say rather than what it did say. The title was clear and concise. However, it lacked blunt moral authority and social correctness. For Custen, the title implied that being known as Jewish would mean you would suffer anti-Semitism. The title didn’t necessarily make a strong point against anti-Semitism. Had the title instead been, “This Country Needs to Stop All the Unfair Discrimination of Jews,” more assertive, it would have been better.

Producer Daryl F. Zanuck’s use of a non-Jew to play a Jew as a way to protest anti-Semitism was not unlike Zanuck’s use of a Jewish jazz performer as a way to protest white protest toward African American’s contributions to Hollywood in the 1920’s film The Jazz Singer. Near the end of the film at a climactic scene, Jack Robin, played by Al Jolson, pretended he was black, seamlessly rubbing a black substance all over his face. He did this backstage right before he was to perform to a standing ovation. In both films, a social issue is challenged and overcome as the leading actors, Phil and Jack, are heroes in the end.

But was Green a hero or was his social crusade self-interested so he could write a good piece? After all, Green initially didn’t want to take the assignment, and only really got interested in it once he realized his “edge” for the perfect piece. Moreover, once the stories started to get published and became a success, there was no mention or hint that Green would continue to expose and battle anti-Semitism. The viewer is led to believe that Green would move on to another project, rejoining his previous cozy non-Jew status. This is not, however, to undermine his efforts and success and exposing anti-Semitism.

A Times article in 1948 reported that Gentleman’s Agreement was being banned in Spain by the order of the ecclesiastical member of the Film Censorship Board in Madrid. A source in the story that had ties with the board said the order “stipulated that while it was a Christian duty to ‘stimulate love among individuals, societies, nations and peoples,'” Jews should not be included in this duty.

Some six reasons were cited for why the board came to their decision. Among them were that Jews and Christians were seen as equals and to believe otherwise is “poison”; that Green couldn’t act as a Jew even temporarily when in reality he was a Christian (when you become a Jew you must give up being a Christian), and to do so is a “grievous sin”; that Jewish pride mentioned in the film is confusing and degrading—”The pride of being the people who put God to death? Of being perfidious, as they are called in Holy Scripture?”

The following day the Times published another article on the negative reaction by Catholics and Jews to the banning on “moral grounds.” Citing a statement from Cardinal Spellman of the Chancery office of the New York Archdiocese, it read that Jews are indeed included in the Christian duty to spread love. Other religious figures in the article agreed that Christian doctrine maintained love for Jews as well as everyone else.

A few days later, again in the Times, it was reported that the Board of Film Censors’ President announced that the board’s decision was not based on anti-Semitism. The president sought to set the record straight on what the source had quoted: “Through love of individuals, nations and all peoples, including, naturally, the Jews, it is not possible to foment the propagation of errors such as some contained in the film…” The president went on to say that Spain does not have an issue with anti-Semitism. Rather, he said Spain has a “beautiful and traditional Spanish idea of human freedom.” (Apparently, the Spanish Inquisition never registered in his mind.) The next year the same censorship board in Madrid had lifted its ban on the film.

Coincidentally, Gregory Peck, who played Phil Green, was a hero as well in the classic film To Kill A Mockingbird in which he starred white lawyer Atticus Finch who defended a black man wrongly accused of rape. The setting was the south where racism ran rampant. By defending a hated person, Finch placed himself and his family in danger. This is seen in Gentleman’s Agreement too as the star’s son is taunted at school for being perceived as Jewish. As Atticus says, “You never truly know someone until you’ve stood in their shoes and walked around in them.”

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